Victoria and Nike:
My Siegessaule Discovery.
Elsewhere I have outlined the series of steps that lead me from a fascination with the Military-Industrial-Complex to an historicist perspective on the present that hinges upon the role in classicism of the female image as embodiment of conceptual paradigm.
A notable variation of this is found in the project “Nike”. The piece principally consists of a photograph of a model of a Nike-Hercules missile coupled with a summary of that weapons role in the defeat and extinction of the Soviet Union. However, a female figure plays into it not merely as a means of lending scale to the towering missile but as a token of the gendered identity of the Greek personification of the spirit of victory.
The Hellene orientation of my thoughts were such that I had not even come across the Roman version of Nike, that is, Victoria, until several years later. This with my discovery of the Siegessaule, which came as a revelation to me and which I resolved to visit at the first opportunity. Something so huge and so relevant warranted a pilgrimage.
Thus it was that inside less than a week I was undertaking a carefully formulated plan of approach to the gleaming Goddess atop her immense fascist baton. I had decided that I wanted to witness the emergence of the column out of the distance whilst approaching it on foot from the West. Therefore I took the U-Bahn to Tiergarten. Emerging the wrong side of the station into strong sunlight I had a little challenge re-orienting myself and avoiding the distracting lure of multiple photographic subjects. Soon, however, I was onto Allee 17 Juin and the Siegessaule was erect before me.
Patently I had been unprepared for its size. Even at this distance it constituted a towering immensity and the notion of watching it emerge from the horizon as I approached therefore took something of a blow. From even this distance it seemed that I was already standing almost under it.
It was with the breathless perturbation of a teenage Beatles fan about to meet John Lennon that I feverishly blended photographing and approaching the monument. It was the penultimate day of September and yet the sun burned like June. Clouds were but a vague, whispy rumour and the conditions were photographically ideal. It is within the parameters of such blessings that I was able to turn out one unique image of the column, in 950Nm IR and another that is, I am confident, the finest depiction of it that it is practicable to find. That is to say, there may exist better but you are unlikely to find one.
This initial photographic session took about half an hour before I proceeded to the under-pass and the precinct of the column, an island surrounded by terrifyingly busy traffic. An excellent guitarist played “I’m Not In Love” by 10 C.C. with intended irony I thought, as I grovelled at the foot of the ascending steps at the exit, to record more images of the Goddess towering above me. These minutes felt very precious and I am glad that I also have a video of them, myself at work with various tourists stopping to watch before passing on their way.
This second photographic session concluded, another twenty minutes or so having passed, I proceeded to the daunting prospect of the ascent. The only way up is via the tiny 19th century spiral staircase. I am sure that it would not be open to the public if it were located in the UK and under directives of the latter-day Reich, the EU, it will no doubt eventually be closed. In the meantime it is patently very popular, principally among German visitors to Berlin. Perhaps Germans learn about “Vicky” as children but to me this was entirely new.
Indeed, for me the discovery of Victoria, the Siegessaule and this extraordinary arrival on a day held-over from summer into autumn for, it would seem, this specific purpose, created a growing sense of unreality. More exactly, a kind of hallucinatory, ultra-vivid hyper-reality. Part-way up the column I stopped at one of the small landings to rest and explained to a stout English visitor and his German girl-friend another of the elements of personal history converging on this moment.
I recounted the experience as a sixteen-year old of a similar ascent of a tower in France. Where the tower was or what it was exactly, I do not know. It was located at a monastery about half an hour’s drive from Rouen. Presumably some kind of campanile but I don’t recall any way for pull-ropes to hang. Just a stone staircase winding up relentlessly. The tower must have been about a hundred feet in height. Gleaming and white and half a millennium old. There were many visitors at the monastery but no others in the tower. Alone I kept climbing. Every so often there was a slit which I peered out of, discovering that I seemed hardly any higher. Eventually I decided that nothing up there could be worth the climb and without ever reaching the top went back down.
I pointed out to my listeners how regrettable that was. That such a failure in an early chapter of my life was not going to be repeated in this latter episode. Moreover, I observed to them, do note that whereas that staircase near the start of my life had wound anti-clockwise, this one near the end of my life was clockwise! These were ying and yang of each other. I was going to make a point of getting to the top!
At the top the viewing platform is a ledge about four feet wide enclosed within a cage comprising a lower banded section and one of open wire railings overhead. The latter appeared to be designed with the intention of preventing a return of Wim Wenders or anyone else scaling the statue for real. An utterly inconceivable notion but one that assuredly some drunk or several must at some time have attempted. The situation within this largely secure enclosure in itself feels anything but secure. There is a sizeable gap at the bottom of the cage and I kept having the notion that the lens hood might drop off my precious Carl-Zeiss Vario-Sonnar and shoot under and off the ledge. Sure enough, after I had been up there some time the lens hood indeed fell off my camera and shot off under the cage to the edge of the ledge. Very slowly and carefully I lowered myself to retrieve it. Partly afraid I would knock it the rest of the way off and partly wary of having some clown barge into me. You see it was far from peaceful in the midst of the sky: the little cupola was brimming with tourists of all ages, from infant to dotant and with varieties of screaming yahoo of both youth and middle-age in between. Fortunately there were no Americans or that would really have made it hell (juss' teasin' folks), but there was this German man of about forty five who seemed intent on making up for the lack of high-jinks, at one point insisting upon screaming at someone he knew at the edge of the tree-line, some quarter of a kilometre away and hundreds of feet below!
Whilst there the big Englishman I had been talking to arrived but he couldn’t cope with the height. He complained that he felt as though the tower was swaying as he leaned with his back against the reassuring solidity of the stone-work. I assured him that it was indeed swaying. Not the most tactful of comments especially given that I soon decided the apparent swaying was in fact some kind of illusion or a low level manifestation of my intermittent ear infections that had not reached the noticeable threshold of actual fever.
A razzled looking German man, unkempt beard and presumably a Berliner to look at him, popped out of the door in the company of his,… well a woman who might well have been his therapist. But if this was meant to cure his fear of heights it sorely backfired as it took just a few moments of my supportive comments for him to pop back into the turret like a human cuckoo .
For me this was also challenging. A perfectly safe place yet one that inspired something not unrelated to The Fear of God. I knew I would not be making the climb again, I wanted to make the most of being there and I wasn’t retreating without having paid full homage to The Goddess proud above my head.
The statue is entirely sheathed in gold. It is immense. Yet when one is at its feet it seems strangely small. I wondered aloud to a foreign visitor whether it was lessee majesty to photograph, as it were, up the statues skirt? But I knew that I could surely do better than the feeble image I had seen on Wikipedia. Moreover, the ingenious swivelling monitor on my live-view camera permitted me to shoot with my back to the wall, over my head. Nonetheless, the upper cage is irregular and impossible to either get a good compositional grip on or shoot the statue free of the intrusion of.
When it came to shooting the view beyond the cage the problem was partly fear of things dropping over the edge and also that of, as ever, being jostled by the melee crammed noisily into the narrow space. Hence I managed only to grab a few haphazard and ill worked-through shots of the breath-taking view. It is really nothing like being inside a tall building. It is much more like standing at an elevated point in free space.
The strangest party up there was undoubtedly the youth and his teenage girlfriends. They didn’t seem to be tourists and were not with family. They were not excited. They had seen it all before. They surely do not use this as a rendezvous! Do they? That is what it seemed like. In which case, truly only the fit girls need apply!
It was necessary for me tomake three complete circuits of the cupola. It was a ritual I felt that I had to perform in spite of the fear of being noticed as doing so.
The descent was more trying than the climb. A young mother, old enough to know better, insisted on having her infant, barely able to walk, climb down the stairs herself. I was immediately behind as the child held her mother’s hand and teetered upon the brink of disaster with every faltering step. I was terrified that this inexpressibly foolish woman was going to get the child killed. If not here and now then, with that approach to the world, in the not too distant future. I preferred it not be now and moreover I was afraid the people behind me were becoming impatient and liable to attribute the slowness of proceedings to that silly old koot with the moustache. I was relieved when the child and her mother reached the first landing and I was able to get past them.
Back in the basement I studied the models of monuments in the museum. A strange, silent cavalcade of colossi. A remarkable number and variety of them German. Including models of this very structure. I was particularly attracted to the Arminius monument. I wondered how I could have lived a life without knowing that such a thing existed. In fact I was forced to wonder if it really did exist, which of course I now know to be the case. The discovery and pilgrimage to the Siegessaule had in a quite remarkable way actually altered my sense of “reality” and my perception of the world. It was as though having lived a life in a cramped over-crowded house I had witnessed a door thrown open to an entire other wing. How?
Well obviously I had had no previous understanding of just how enamoured the Germans are of colossal monuments. Not just the NAZIs. I have long been in love with humanly constructed immensities. It must have started with early exposure to the full-size blue whale model in the Natural History Museum in London. The terrifying awe this instilled in me as a young child actually prevented me entering the room. I eventually returned as an adult but the build-up which I engaged in on my pilgrimage to that room, about seventeen years on, psyching myself for that awe, was of course followed by anti-climax. The whale no longer seemed quite so gigantic. I suppose that the fuse had been lit. I was going someday to crave something bigger. Much bigger!
On the other hand, to live in England is to endure a version of Lilliput. Everything is tiny. The pusillanimous architecture and the tiny “minds” that are reflected in it. I had now discovered not only that not far away there is a land where real scale is appreciated but that its appreciation is expressed in the realisation of structures possessing true grandeur. This was a whole new wing of the house.
Moreover, there was a whole new wing of the hermeneutic house that the Siegessaule opened to me. Not merely in that I had somehow overlooked the Roman dimension of Victoria, alternate persona to the Greek, Nike, but because the Siegessaule in its very articulation embodies the principles that I have found myself following latterly in my graphic pursuits. The column of course alludes to both the Roman staff of authority and the bundle of tied twigs, the fascine, that is the very symbol of Rome, and, inconveniently of Fascism. But the borrowing of classical allusion in traditional monument making is obviously something I had all my life taken for granted. Rather, the key element of resonance that I found between my visual games and those of the creators of the Siegessaule is embodied in the bronze friezes that occupy its base. For it is here that we find contemporaneously attired and armed “modern” German (that is to say, Prussian) soldiers depicted in stylised poses and compositions that self-consciously echo those of the classical past.
Britannia harks to the classical but is dressed accordingly and armed with a trident. Bronze Boadicea on the Embankment does not even pretend to be a real person. These dudes, however, wore picklehaubs and toted bolt action rifles! This was so very like one of my own pieces that it truly blew open the portals that had confined my sense of my practice to myself alone. An exciting gust of fresh air blew into my world that connected me in the most surprising and unanticipated way to the most unlikely of streams of creativity. The monument makers of a bygone emergent state.
From this experience I have drawn much fascination and excitement. I had discovered that when, in 2008, I created “Nike” utilising the fuselage of a recently retired missile, here in Germany had stood for long beyond a century a homage to Victoria that utilised the barrels of recently obsolete cannons.
Gold sheathed cannons.